Lemke to race for Dale Jr.’s Late Model team

San Benito High junior Adam Lemke will race for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Late Model program.

Hollister native Adam Lemke grew up watching NASCAR, envisioning himself one day as a professional race car driver. The 16-year-old Lemke—a San Benito High junior who is on independent studies—took a big step in making that dream a reality when he was named a driver for JR Motorsports’ Late Model program for the upcoming 2019 season.

JR Motorsports is the race team and management company of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the son of legendary figure Dale Earnhardt and arguably the most popular driver in NASCAR history. JR Motorsports fields a full roster of four cars in the NASCAR Xfinity Series while also being a key player with its Late Model program. Lemke, who is known for being a cool customer in the race car, finally let it all hang out when the news became final last Thursday that he would be one of the drivers in JR Motorsports’ Late Model program.

“I started jumping all over my dad (Rodney) and messing with my crew chief (Randy Chastain),” said Lemke, who was reached by phone and was in Indianapolis to attend the USAC Champions Night Banquet and the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Trade Show. “It’s crazy to think when I first started talking to you of what I wanted to do, and now I’m talking to you saying how I’m actually going to do it.”

It’s no coincidence JR Motorsports decided to put Lemke in one of its Late Model cars. Lemke is coming off a spectacular 2018 season in which he won the pavement and overall championships in the USAC Western Midget Series along with Rookie of the Year honors in the RPM Pro Late Model Series at Madera Speedway. Lemke’s race team, which consists of Rodney and Chastain—among others—was remarkably consistent, with Adam winning eight of 12 races in the USAC Midgets, including finishing no worse than third place in any of the races.

Lemke also finished second in the dirt series portion of the championship. In the Late Model series, Lemke earned three top-five finishes en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors.

“Having a driver of Adam’s capabilities is very important to the future of JR Motorsports,” L.W. Miller, who is the director of motorsports at JRM, said in a release on jrmracing.com. “We’re very happy to have a young driver of his caliber to continue on the trail blazed by drivers like Josh Berry, William Byron and Sam Mayer. He’s been winning races and championships out West, and we think he’s going to continue to do so here in the Southeast.”

As Lemke was winning races and contending in each of them, others noticed. With all of Lemke’s races being available on TV/video, any of the major players in motorsports had the opportunity to view Lemke’s performances. Lorin Ranier, who is one of the more well-known talent evaluators in NASCAR, got wind of Lemke and started tracking his performances. This eventually led to Lemke doing a test run with Ranier in North Carolina earlier this year.

“It went really well, and I think that’s when Lorin realized Adam could be the one in 10,000 or one in 100,000 driver who can actually get it done,” Rodney said. “I didn’t think it would be this soon and for JR Motorsports, but Lorin is well connected (in the race world), and he was seeing Adam setting unofficial track record lap times as a 15 year old on his first lap. That is what caught Lorin’s eye, and he spent a good year finding a good seat for Adam and telling teams this is the kid you want.”

Rodney also credited Chastain, Rod Wortham, Susan Kinnicutt, Mike and Sharon Naake, Tony Caputo and Sarah Holliday for raising Adam’s profile and getting word out on his dynamic performances on the track. As Lemke’s crew chief in the open wheel race car, Chastain has a bird’s eye view of what makes Lemke special. The reasons are myriad, starting with a natural ability to be one with the race car.

The best drivers know the precise way to relay information to their crew chief so their race car can be adjusted properly. Every word and description counts in a sport where seconds are paramount.

“He can tell me exactly what the car is doing so we can talk about it and get it fixed,” said Chastain, who has been a crew chief for 12 years and has worked with over 100 drivers in that period. “He is one of the smartest drivers I’ve ever worked with. He listens so well and can apply that to what he’s doing on the track, and that alone makes him successful. He’s very studious, listens well and that allows him to take his natural talent to the next level. I couldn’t be any prouder and I’m extremely excited being able to work with him the last couple of years. I’ve seen see him grow as a person and driver, and it’s been an awesome thing to watch.”

Rodney saw something special in Adam at an early age. The two watched NASCAR races every Sunday for the better part of a decade. When Adam was 9, Rodney took him to a NASCAR race in Fontana. As they walked through merchandise row, Adam saw a booth set up for quarter midget race cars. That’s when Rodney asked Adam if he wanted to race a quarter midget.

“That is when I decided to do this,” Adam said.

Even though Lemke showed a preternatural talent in the race car, he knew that wasn’t good enough. So early in his career, Lemke started investing time off the track to complement the time he spent on the track. Like a number of pro drivers, Lemke spends time practicing on a race simulator to preview a race track.

“It’s a pretty good way to learn the basics of a track,” he said. “I’ll have the basics learned and if no one else did that, I’ll already have a foot ahead of them, which is huge in this sport.”

Chastain said Lemke is one of the top drivers he’s ever worked with, starting with his ability and attitude.

“I’d put him in the top echelon not just on his ability, but his attitude and willingness to learn,” Chastain said. “He’s a good overall person and that is huge in the bigger picture of things because that will get you a long way in life.”

Lemke credits his dad for providing him with all of the support necessary to set him up for success. Rodney has raised Adam by himself since Adam was 2 ½ years old. The commitment it takes for a parent of a race car driver who has dreams of making it big is downright draining in all aspects: physically, mentally and monetarily. Rodney owns his own construction company, which footed the bill for the race car operations early on.

Over time, however, Adam has been able to gain sponsorships to defray the costs of operating a team. While the monetary commitment has been sizeable, Rodney said the time commitment has been far greater. The Lemkes spend approximately 30 weekends a year out of town—or out of the state—competing on the race track.

“A family of four just can’t make as many events as we do,” Rodney said. “I didn’t have anybody to tell me no when I unloaded the race car onto the trailer on a Friday night. There were no other conflicts with another child and wife. It was just me and him, a couple of bachelors running the race track.”

The Lemkes actually endured a recent stretch in which they were gone for 13 consecutive weekends—“I won’t be doing that again any time soon,” Rodney said—culminating with a cross-country flight to North Carolina to meet with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and some of the executives of JR Motorsports.

“We were racing in Stockton, put the car in the trailer to return to Hollister, then got on a  red-eye flight,” Rodney said. “We had a meeting  with Dale’s brother-in-law as I’m running on 16 hours of sleep over a three-day period.”

Rodney always had confidence that Adam would get a ride of this caliber—he just didn’t think it would come this soon. When Ranier first called Rodney to get the process started, Rodney thought someone was playing a joke on him.

“I thought it was a prank,” he said. “It was a shocker.”

Adam Lemke did a couple of test runs for JR Motorsports, which obviously liked what they saw from the Hollister native. The Lemkes will spend a couple of weeks testing in North Carolina in January and February to prepare for the upcoming 2019 Cars Tour season, with Adam’s first race tentatively scheduled for March 9. Adam will start every race well prepared, because that is how he races.

“When he finds out which race track he’ll be going to, he pulls up video and everything written about the track so he’ll have complete knowledge of it,” Rodney said.

Adam possesses humble confidence, a necessary trait for aspiring pro athletes. He believes in his abilities, but also recognizes a need to stay humble and continually work to improve. Adam also said he was grateful for having a father who has guided him along the way.

“Without him, none of this would’ve happened,” Adam said. “He plays a huge role in how all of this happened and how far I’m going to go in my racing career.”